press release - The Bancroft Library

Richard Bucci, “On Mark Twain’s San Francisco Correspondence,” 6 May 2015
On the Mark Twain Project’s forthcoming scholarly edition of Mark Twain’s San
Francisco Correspondence for the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise
Literary Archaeology Spanning Decades
In February 1865, Mark Twain returned to San Francisco from a mining camp in California’s
gold country. He had been hiding from the authorities for most of the winter, in danger of being
jailed in the place of a friend who was wanted for assault. He was scruffy, poor, and without a
job. By the spring he was borderline destitute, but he begged a job from his old employer, the
Territorial Enterprise of Virginia City, Nevada. He was soon acting as their telegraphic reporter
and occasional correspondent. He was then in debt and his spirits were so low that he once
considered ending it all. But by early October 1865, his role as San Francisco correspondent
grew into a full-time job, for which he was paid $100 per month—enough over time to
recuperate his bank account and lift his spirits. And the writing was wonderful: “among the best
things he ever did,” according to Territorial Enterprise editor and proprietor Joseph T.
From early October 1865 and until he left for Hawaii in March 1866, Mark Twain wrote a daily
“San Francisco Letter,” dispatched by steamboat for Sacramento, and thence by rail and
stagecoach to Virginia City. He wrote five or six letters per week, each one perhaps 2,000 words
in length. He reported on local events, wrote tall tales and recalled stories of his life on the
Mississippi River before the Civil War and more recent experiences in the mining regions of
California and Nevada. He criticized the San Francisco police, for corruption and brutality. He
denounced attacks on San Francisco’s Chinese population. He criticized the city administration
for corruption and incompetence and made a laughing stock of its principal defender, Albert
Evans, local reporter for the San Francisco Alta California. Despite a delay of well over a week
between when Mark Twain wrote these letters and when they came back to San Francisco in
printed form, the Territorial Enterprise became one of the most sought after newspapers in the
city. Issues were snatched from newsstands as soon as they arrived.
History was not kind to these original printings, however. The files of the Territorial Enterprise
for the early and middle 1860s—the times when Mark Twain was its star reporter and
correspondent—were destroyed in two disasters: the Virginia City, Nevada, fire of 1875 and the
San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906. Fortunately, contemporary surviving newspapers
from San Francisco to the Montana Territory reprinted choice parts of the correspondence. Two
San Francisco literary weeklies, the Golden Era (edited by Joseph Lawrence) and the
Californian (edited by Charles Henry Webb and Bret Harte), were especially receptive to Mark
Twain’s art and reprinted generous excerpts in nearly every weekly issue. A third important
source came to light in the 1950s—a scrapbook of original Enterprise clippings kept by the
author and partly mutilated by him in creating printer’s copy for his first book, The Celebrated
Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, And other Sketches. This precious collection, which is now
at the Beinecke Library at Yale, preserves some of the letters complete, some in fragmentary
The world has thus long known the letters from the reprints in the three main sources—the
Golden Era, the Californian, and the Yale Scrapbook. In 1938, Franklin Walker reprinted the
Richard Bucci, “On Mark Twain’s San Francisco Correspondence,” 6 May 2015
Golden Era extracts in his collection, The Washoe Giant in San Francisco. In 1957 Mark Twain
Papers editor Henry Nash Smith published Mark Twain: San Francisco Correspondent, which
contained a generous selection of texts from the Yale Scrapbook. Then in 1963, Bernard Taper
drew on all three sources to create his collection, Mark Twain’s San Francisco. In ensuing years
additional reprinted extracts were found in scattered newspaper sources by Mark Twain editors,
including the Edgar M. Branch and the current general editor of the Mark Twain Project, Robert
Hirst. Branch and Hirst were able to incorporate some of what they found in a two-volume
scholarly collection, Early Tales & Sketches (1979–1981).
In the 1990s, Richard Bucci became the editor of the planned complete scholarly edition of the
San Francisco correspondence. He renewed the search and has been able to add more texts, from
both original clippings of the Enterprise and reprinted excerpts in Western newspapers.
Additional reprints have been discovered over the years by other scholars, including Gary
Scharnhorst and Michael Marleau. After hundreds of bound newspaper volumes and microfilm
reels had been pored over, the planned edition was delayed, as the Mark Twain Project devoted
resources to publish, among other works, the complete Mark Twain’s Autobiography (the third
and final volume of which will appear later this year). During this interval, new sources for
searching emerged: Brewster Kahle’s Internet Archive, Google Books, Google News, and fulltext newspaper databases. Especially important to the forthcoming collection of Mark Twain’s
surviving San Francisco writings has been “Chronicling America,” the Library of Congress’s
site, and the California Digital Newspaper Collection. These searchable digital sources allowed
Bucci and other Mark Twain scholars to find new fragments of Mark Twain’s fugitive San
Francisco correspondence.
The result is that we now have about half again as much as what Franklin Walker, Henry Smith,
and Bernard Taper published in the mid-20th century. The forthcoming scholarly volume, Mark
Twain’s Writings: San Francisco 1865-1866, to be published by the University of California
Press in 2017, will contain about 65,000 words of the correspondence. In Bucci’s estimation this
comes to about 25 percent of the original total. The scholarly edition relies on over 150
fragments of every type—including original Territorial Enterprise clippings from scrapbooks,
reprinted extracts from contemporary newspapers, and indirect reports (summaries of particular
passages rather than verbatim extracts). From these source documents nearly 120 discrete texts, a
few complete, most fragmentary, will be presented in their presumed chronological order, with
the historical commentary needed to understand the 150-year-old circumstances of
composition—a San Francisco teeming with stray dogs, runaway horses, live chickens, corrupt
officials, ruined millionaires, plotting Fenians, literary bohemians, and daring actresses. Mark
Twain’s pen sketched them all.
Brooklyn, N. Y. / 6 May 2015